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Private Rentals

13. Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley): What plans he has to improve the workings of the private rental sector of the housing market. [94223]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have a number of initiatives already in hand. We are committed to mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation. We are reviewing fitness standards and piloting a voluntary rent deposit dispute resolution scheme. In addition, we support the national approved letting scheme for letting agents. We will set out our full conclusions on the future of the private rented sector in our forthcoming housing Green Paper.

Mr. Stringer: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but is he aware that in my constituency and many other northern cities the market in houses on terraced streets built before the first world war is in disarray? Disreputable private landlords are bringing in anti-social, sometimes criminal, tenants on the back of housing benefit and driving decent people out. That has led to whole rows of terraced houses standing empty. Does he agree that one of the answers to that problem is to regulate private landlords?

Mr. Raynsford: I agree that there is a problem in several cities with abandonment of properties; it has been possible for certain elements to buy cheaply properties that are then unscrupulously exploited, as are the tenants who occupy them. That is why the Government commissioned a specific report from policy action team 7 to look into the social exclusion agenda and problems of unpopular housing. That report, which we warmly welcomed a few weeks ago, set out a number of interesting conclusions about action that can be taken.

I do not believe that a registration scheme for all private sector housing would necessarily achieve my hon. Friend's objectives. Manchester, which is his council, tried to introduce an accreditation scheme for rented housing, but it did not prove entirely successful. There are serious problems in securing the adherence of landlords to letting and, indeed, in identifying all the landlords in existence,

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which make it difficult for bureaucratic schemes of that nature to achieve their purpose. It is right to focus on properties with the highest risk, and we see HMOs as being in that category, which is why we are proceeding with our licensing scheme for multi-occupied houses.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Would the Minister confirm that in the past 10 years the number of households renting from private landlords has increased by perhaps 25 per cent.--an increase from roughly 1.75 million to well over 2 million? Does he agree that that has come about by relaxing regulations that control private landlords where that could be done sensibly? The one thing that would reverse that trend would be the imposition of excessive and unnecessary regulation now.

Mr. Raynsford: I agree that we do not want unnecessary and excessive regulation. There should be controls to deal with properties that are in the worst condition, where people's lives are put at risk by unscrupulous landlords. That is why we are licensing multi-occupied houses. We also want to encourage reputable landlords to come into the market--we have said so repeatedly and we will continue to do so. The overall pattern is one in which the private rented sector has stabilised. The number of lettings in the sector is not increasing and is below the 1979 level. We are however keen to see an improvement in the responsible side of the market, while we bear down on the more disreputable parts of it.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): As my hon. Friend will be aware, the housing benefit going to private sector landlords has tripled since 1989-90 while lettings have increased by only 11 per cent. in the same period. Given the amount of public sector investment going to private landlords, does he agree that it is essential that we get value for money by tackling the enormous amounts of disrepair in the sector, so that private tenants can enjoy decent quality accommodation in return for the housing benefit investment that the Government are giving private landlords?

Mr. Raynsford: I agree with my hon. Friend that tackling the problems of disrepair is important. That is why we are reviewing fitness standards, as I said. I also agree that we need to ensure value for money. That will be a fundamental issue to be tackled in our forthcoming housing Green Paper.

New Forest

14. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement regarding his plans for national park status for the New Forest. [94224]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime

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Minister announced on 29 September that he has asked the Countryside Agency to consider designating the New Forest as a national park. The agency will work closely with my Department, local authorities, the members of the New Forest committee and a whole range of local and national interests in reviewing the options.

Mr. Swayne: The Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State's announcement was greeted with disappointment and dismay by the New Forest committee, the verderers, the commoners, the district council and the county councillors. Why did the Minister reject the clearly expressed preference of what was then the Countryside Commission, now the agency?

Mr. Meacher: My right hon. Friend's announcement has been widely welcomed, including by local interests. The former Countryside Commission recommended tailor-made legislation, that is true. There is a serious drawback, however, which is the lack of parliamentary time. Primary legislation would be required and there is a lack of early parliamentary time. The previous Government repeatedly promised to introduce legislation, but they never did; we are doing so and we believe that there is scope for a national park authority to do an excellent job for the New Forest, just as the park authorities are doing for many other parts of the country.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): It is clear, from the Minister's reply, that his assurance yesterday to the Countryside Alliance that he was in listening mode did not apply to people living near the New Forest. Will he confirm that he will need to repeal three Acts of Parliament before a national park can have full management powers? Will he say when those Acts will be repealed? Without that commitment, the House will think, rightly, that the announcement is merely another press release with no substance--another great Labour lie.

Mr. Meacher: There has been enormous discussion of this matter. It was discussed for many years under the previous Government, but the problem was that that they did not act. We are very conscious of the desire of the great majority of local interests for action on this issue. The powers of the Forestry Commission and the verderers will not be affected by the creation of a national park, and the primary New Forest legislation already in place will not be affected. However, because we are listening to what is being said, we have asked the Countryside Agency to examine how the views of the Forestry Commission, English Nature and the verderers can be reflected in national park structures, especially in terms of membership structures and the creation of committees.

We are listening and we shall continue to do so. There will not be a national park until this matter has been considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If objections are raised, it is for him to decide whether to call a public inquiry.

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Points of Order

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I rise to raise a point that I put to you privately. It concerns an article that appears in The Guardian today under the name of Michael White, from which I shall quote two extracts. It begins:

It goes on to state that

    "it is widely understood that many ministers will be glad to see the back of their assertive . . . colleague, hoping to replace her with a more emollient opposition MP."

I am not concerned with the source of the leak. It is an assumption of Governments that all Ministers and their press officers speak with the authority of the Prime Minister. Nor am I concerned with your position, Madam Speaker, because you were elected unanimously by the House, and I know of no Speaker who has enjoyed so much support. However, I am concerned with the implication that the ability to appoint the Speaker of the House of Commons lies within the patronage of the Prime Minister, when in reality that power belongs to the House.

A sort of parallel might be drawn with the events of 4 January 1642, when Charles I tried to arrest the five Members. Today, the spin doctors in the Press Gallery are trying to remove the Speaker, but the same principle is at stake. It is very important that hon. Members should defend the House, because the legislature is not a quango of the Executive.

I very much hope, Madam Speaker, that you will use your discretion to find an opportunity to allow the role of the Executive vis-a-vis the House of Commons to be properly debated. I do not ask for a considered judgment now, but I feel very strongly that, unless it asserts itself, the House will virtually disappear as a factor in our political society.

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